The Ghost of Christmas Past is one of the spectral visitors that helps Ebenezer Scrooge on the path to redemption in Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. Also called a spirit and specter, this ghostly visitor is not particularly frightening, except that it has the power to evoke emotional pain and scrutiny by detailing the way in which Scrooge has celebrated Christmas in past years. In this role, the Ghost of Christmas Past is quite effective and succeeds in getting Scrooge in touch with his former feelings about Christmas, which were not all negative.
Dickens gives this character an unusual description. The figure is genderless and appears to oscillate between young and old faces, but is the approximate size of a child. Its constant shift in appearance is evocative of the way that the past is filled with numerous memories that may blend together at times. Some scholars of Dickens’ work believe that the Ghost of Christmas Past in description is similar to the Christkind, an alternative to St. Nicholas that was proposed by Marin Luther in the 16th century.
The changing description of the Ghost of Christmas Past has led many who dramatize A Christmas Carol to make interesting choices on who will play this spirit. In many film and play versions, the spirit is played by a woman. This isn’t necessarily inaccurate because Dickens describes the ghost as without gender. Moreover, modern representations of the Christkind tend to depict this figure as female.
While journeying with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge is aware that the spirit represents his past, and he is shown scenes his childhood and forward. These include several of his childhood Christmases in a schoolroom, the breakup of his love relationship because he loved money too much, and a special Christmas celebration at the warehouse of his former employer Fezziwig. Of the scenes in this first visitation, most people find Fezziwig’s ball incredibly memorable. Through him, Dickens makes the point that it is possible to be an employer interested in the cares of employees, and that it takes only a little to show kindness and concern.
The memory of Fezziwig’s Ball evoked by the Ghost of Christmas Past is an important part of the action of the story. It places Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchitt, in a very different light. For the first time Scrooge remembers his poor employee is made happy or miserable by his employer’s actions, and Scrooge has never really acted before in a manner responsible to him.
Scrooge’s visit with the Spirit of Christmas Past ends with Scrooge viewing the family and children of the woman he once loved. Having opened his heart, the Spirit nearly breaks it by showing him how his choices could have made him happy instead of miserable. The effect is almost more than Scrooge can bear, and Scrooge wrestles with the ghost, squishing its cap upon its head that extinguishes its light and the source of its memories. Despite this painful interlude at the end, Scrooge is quite willing to go on with his visions the next night with the Ghost of Christmas Present.